Playboy to WWE: 30 Racy Wrestling & Adult Industry Relations

From high-profile WWE features in publications like Playboy and Playgirl, interesting details behind why Shawn Michaels had second thoughts about his front page magazine feature, Sunny (Tammy Sytch)’s refusal to pose, the former Attitude Era superstar who became an adult film director, and more, learn about 30 racy times professional wrestling entangled with the adult industry and the many controversies that arose from these encounters.

1 – Playboy: Fifty Years of Wrestling History

Former WWE diva Torrie Wilson, Hugh Hefner, and Stephanie McMahon.
Former WWE diva Torrie Wilson, Hugh Hefner, and Stephanie McMahon. Photo Credit: Playboy, WWE.

In the world of professional wrestling, there have been many different storylines that include elements of romance and attraction. With wrestling narratives weaving threads of allure, intimidation, physical confrontation, and coercion, the infusion of eroticism has become an integral industry component.

A natural place to begin the tale of wrestling’s relationship with sexuality takes place in the pages of Playboy magazine. This uniquely American cultural touchstone has been influencing ideas about attractiveness for more than 50 years. The company’s relationship with professional wrestling goes back almost the same amount of time.

Although it would take on much bigger stages, a starting point for the pairing was at a local Big Time Wrestling show in Sacramento, California, in 1972.

2 – “Miss Wrestling” Miki Garcia: Professional Wrestling’s First Playboy Playmate

Pro wrestling's first Playboy Playmate: "Miss Wrestling Miki Garcia.
Pro wrestling’s first Playboy Playmate: “Miss Wrestling Miki Garcia. Photo Credit: A&E, Sacramento Bee.

Sacramento teen Miki Garcia was a consummate pageant contestant and winner. She was anointed Miss Sacramento in 1972 and, at the time, was described as collecting “titles like some people collect parking tickets.”

After her pageant win, Garcia got a job on the Big Time Wrestling program as “Miss Wrestling,” where she would come out to the ring between bouts as a ring girl of sorts. She continued to work at the promotion for three years.

3 – Hugh Hefner Takes an Interest in Wrestling

Former professional wrestler and Playmate "Miss Wrestling" Miki Garcia and Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner.
Former professional wrestler and Playmate “Miss Wrestling” Miki Garcia and Playboy founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner. Photo Credit: De Telegraaf.

It’s said that Hugh Hefner, founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy, was watching Big Time Wrestling at his home when he saw “Miss Wrestling” Miki Garcia, holding a card high above her head, walk into the ring.

He immediately contacted his people to reach out to her, which resulted in her soon becoming Playboy’s Miss January 1973.

After agreeing to work for Playboy, Garcia became one of the first Hispanic playmates and only the second woman in the magazine’s history to appear fully bare. So, wrestling and Playboy began their romance.

4 – Playboy and GLOW (The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling)

GLOW (The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) spread in the December 1989 edition of Playboy Magazine.
GLOW (The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) spread in the December 1989 edition of Playboy Magazine. Photo Credit: Playboy.

The relationship continued in the December 1989 edition of Playboy, where Candace Bergen graced the cover. One of the spreads featured some women from the wrestling show GLOW (The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling).

They appeared in a multi-page shoot in the magazine with the headline “Lethal Women.” The magazine had a GLOW collage of high-resolution fighting photos featuring dropkicks, submissions, and pinfalls interlaced with unclad pictorials of the women wrestlers.

While the Gorgeous Ladies were pictured in Playboy, when it came to the ring on the “greatest stage of them all,” the then WWF of the 1980s marketed itself as a family-friendly, sanitized product.

5 – Before WWE and Playboy Went “Hand in Hand”

The "First Lady of Wrestling," Miss Elizabeth Ann Hulette.
The “First Lady of Wrestling,” Miss Elizabeth Ann Hulette. Photo Credit: WWE.

In the mid-to-late 1980s WWF, Miss Elizabeth reigned supreme as the “First Lady of Wrestling” and was the WWF fixture of 1980s Aquanet-saturated grace. The wrestling company was so submerged in its brand of G-rated content that Vince McMahon was even allegedly quoted saying he didn’t think Playboy and WWF went hand in hand.

But, something that could not be ignored, then or now, is the vast similarities between the magazine and wrestling moguls.

6 – Vince McMahon And Hugh Hefner: Best Friends For Never

Vince McMahon and Hugh Hefner.
Vince McMahon and Hugh Hefner. Photo Credit: WWE, Playboy.

Both WWE and Playboy were fronted by incredibly wealthy white men who used other people’s bodies as capital.

Ever the opportunist, as the cultural tides ebbed and flowed, Vince McMahon changed his tune against Playboy. And when he did, it was off to the races.

7 – “Sunny” Tammy Sytch Turned Down Playboy

"Sunny" Tammy Sytch.
“Sunny” Tammy Sytch. Photo Credit: WWE.

After being dubbed the most searched and downloaded woman on AOL in 1996, “Sunny” Tammy Sytch was approached to be in the pages of Playboy. She decided against it, which was a decision she would later regret when the popularity of the women who did pose for the magazine exploded.

With Sunny’s no, a new opportunity arose for another person with blonde hair to enter, and they completely changed the way people view different expressions of attraction in professional wrestling.

8 – WWE’s Sable Breaks Records Gracing the Cover of Playboy in 1999

Former WWE wrestler "Sable" Rena Mero Lesnar poses next to her cover on Playboy Magazine.
Former WWE wrestler “Sable” Rena Mero Lesnar poses next to her cover on Playboy Magazine. Photo Credit: Playboy.

Sable’s version of Pam Anderson in Barb Wire took control of the loins of young men watching at home, and her fame skyrocketed. Sable graced the cover of Playboy in April 1999, and the sales were the highest the company had ever seen.

But this number seems to have been competing with itself because it was broken when Chyna graced the cover one year later.

9 – Chyna Breaks Even More Sales Records for Playboy

Hugh Hefner holding the November 2000 edition of Playboy Magazine featuring Chyna on the front cover.
Hugh Hefner holding the November 2000 edition of Playboy Magazine featuring Chyna on the front cover. Photo Credit: Playboy.

Chyna was an off-the-beat addition to Playboy, different from Sable or the other women who would pose for the magazine. Her body, strength, and appeal deviated from the average, and in the wrestling ring, she first defied feminine expectations.

The World Wrestling Federation had a particular view of what femininity should look like and should be. More in the vain of women like Sunny, Sable, or Miss Elizabeth. Chyna defied that with her muscle-defined arms, legs, and tall figure towering over many men in the company.

10 – Chyna Had Stars In Her Eyes

Chyna posing for Playboy Magazine.
Chyna posing for Playboy Magazine. Photo: Playboy.

In her interview with Playboy, Chyna shared, “I really had stars in my eyes, but I knew mainstream entertainment wouldn’t accept me because I looked too big and strong and strange.”

Chyna described her pride in being featured in Playboy, saying, “It’s a powerful statement. There haven’t been a lot of women in Playboy who look like I do. I am not the norm for beauty. But this is who I am, and this is beautiful.”

But Playboy and WWE weren’t usually breaking molds of beauty.

11 – The Wrestling Women Who Appeared in Playboy

WWE divas on the cover of Playboy Magazine over the years.
WWE divas on the cover of Playboy Magazine over the years. Photo Credit: Playboy.

Over the years, seven women wrestlers from WWE have been featured on the front cover of Playboy. These wrestlers include Chyna, Torrie Wilson, Sable, Maria Kanellis, Ashley Massaro, Candice Michelle, and Christy Hemme.

Additionally, wrestlers such as Debra Micelli (also known as Madusa or Alundra Blayze) and Maryse have also been featured within the pages of the magazine.

12 – WWE Divas Division Due to Playboy Connection?

The WWE Divas Championship.
The WWE Divas Championship. Photo Credit: WWE.

It could be theorized that the WWE’s bonds with Playboy may have played a role in creating the Diva’s division, and with capitalization on the ever-present hyper-femininity, Playboy and WWE propelled one another forward, using each other as a mutual stepping stone.

The WWE Divas Championship butterfly belt came onto the scene in 2008, taking form in the after-effects of the magazine’s influence on the company and the women who worked in it.

After its inception, the WWE Women’s Championship belt was retired, seemingly cementing their belief that there is only one type of femininity, and it was saturated in pink and covered in butterflies.

13 – Evolving with the Times

John Cena.
John Cena. Photo Credit: WWE.

The relationship between WWE and Playboy would not be forever, though, as WWE is known to evolve with the times and oscillate wildly between G-rated and NC-17 content.

In the late aughts into the 2010s, McMahon discovered the power of a kid’s dollar and steered his company in a more family-friendly direction. His fans, who were children in the 1980s and ’90s, started having kids of their own and brought them to the show they loved at their age.

Interestingly, Playboy did a similar rebrand in 2015, removing nudity from its pages. This shift only lasted a couple of years but remains an interesting parallel.

14 – WWE Men Receive a Chunk of the Action

The "Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels.
The “Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels. Photo Credit: WWE.

WWE’s men received a chunk of the action, too, but in a different way from their female counterparts. Their bodies are, of course, commodified and made to look attractive, but is it really the same thing??

An example of this question could be viewed in Shawn Michael’s character. The WWE’s Heartbreak Kid was promoted as a narcissistic, provocative, pretty boy who sometimes leaned more into the realm of exotic dancing than anything else. Dancing around the ring, pulling his pants down to reveal his bottom, and sporting leather chaps were some things the “boy toy” was tasked with.

15 – Shawn Michaels’ Surprise After Posing For Playgirl

Shawn Michaels spread in Playgirl Magazine.
Shawn Michaels spread in Playgirl Magazine. Photo Credit: Playboy.

Ultimately, in 1996, the magazine Playgirl offered Shawn Michaels the front cover and interview, which he agreed to.

The interview is packed with innuendos, jokes about him having a “heart on,” his ability to satiate any lover because of his athletic prowess, and more.

In his 2005 autobiography Heartbreak & Triumph: The Shawn Michaels Story, he shared his thoughts on this experience.

“Some genius in the company thought that having me pose for Playgirl would be good publicity for the company and help me get over,” he wrote.

“Since I wasn’t going to pose [unclothed], I agreed to do it. I thought, ‘Well, it’s a magazine that women read, so why not?’ I figured that if Playboy was for men, Playgirl was for women.”

Though Michaels was convinced this would further cement his sensual appeal, after the magazine was published, it came to his attention that rather than young women being the target audience for the magazine, it was bought mainly by gay men.

“When the magazine came out, I went to do an autograph session,” Michaels reflected in his autobiography.

“At the session, it was about a 60-40 mix of guys and girls, which was normal for one of my autograph sessions. The only thing was, the men there were not your usual wrestling fans. There were a lot of bald guys wearing leather!”

16 – The WWE and Adult Film Crossover

Chyna is one of many from professional wrestling who journeyed into adult films after success in the wrestling industry.
Chyna is one of many from professional wrestling who journeyed into adult films after success in the wrestling industry. Photo Credit: WWE.

In a landscape more fraught than magazine erotica like Playboy/Girl, the economy of pleasure has cornered an ongoing relationship between adult films and wrestling.

There have been examples of wrestlers who took their talent from the squared circle and made money in the adult industry. Although there will always be much-generated controversy around adult films, the two industries have similarities.

The wrestlers who have dipped their toes in the work have what it takes to succeed in both industries: nice bodies, pretty faces, and names people recognize.

Wrestlers also have experience working with their bodies, so it can make sense to pivot into another career that asks the same of them.

17 – Wrestler and “Adult Movie Star” Val Venis

Val Venis.
Val Venis. Photo Credit: WWE.

When it comes to erotica’s place within the squared circle itself, any wrestling fan knows when one brings up the WWE and portrayed adult film stars, Val Venis’s character is one of the first to come to mind.

While the relationship between WWE’s women and Playboy skyrocketed with Sable and Chyna during the Attitude Era, the company’s men were taken in an equally salacious direction.

Venis’s character was described as a former adult film star turned pro wrestler and came from the mind of Vince Russo, a WWE writer more inspired by the circus of Jerry Springer than the circuits of wrestling.

18 – Adult Film Star Jenna Jameson Was Employed for Wrestling Appearances

Adult film star Jenna Jameson and Val Venis appear together in a WWE segment.
Adult film star Jenna Jameson and Val Venis appear together in a WWE segment. Photo Credit: WWE.

In an attempt to establish Venis’s character, Vince McMahon employed the help of real-life adult film star Jenna Jameson.

Jameson was familiar with the wrestling scene, having a couple of appearances in Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) under her belt. Jameson cemented Venis’s character arch after filming a vignette in the backyard of WWE producer Bruce Prichard.

19 – John Wayne Bobbit Saves Val Venis From Being Castrated in WWE

John Wayne Bobbitt saves Val Venis from being castrated on Monday Night Raw, on August 10th, 1998.
John Wayne Bobbitt saves Val Venis from being castrated on Monday Night Raw, on August 10th, 1998. Photo Credit: WWE.

When Val Venis was given a WWE storyline akin to Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, it opened a door for other media sensations to poke their head into the wrestling ring.

When wrestler Yamaguchi turned on Venis in the ring, it was implied he sought to cut off the adult film star character’s favorite toy. When Val finally faced the audience after the ordeal, he said his neck was saved by John Wayne Bobbitt, who came out on stage with him.

Bobbitt became well-known due to the legal case involving him and his ex-wife, Lorena Bobbitt. Lorena explained that after enduring years of mistreatment, a distressing incident pushed her to an extreme emotional state, and she took drastic action in response.

John Wayne Bobbit’s August 10th, 1998 appearance in the then WWF came about five years after his attack, with his male appendage long since reattached by surgery.

Bobbitt was there to tell the audience how he saved Venis from a similar fate, but the similarities did not end there. Bobbitt had already taken part in some adult film work, all revolving around his reattached appendage, inspired by the movie Frankenstein.

20 – Rob Black’s XPW Took Things a Step Further

Rob Black with his then-wife, adult film actress Lizzy Borden.
Rob Black with his then-wife, adult film actress Lizzy Borden. Photo Credit: LukeIsBack.com.

Rob Black’s XPW pushed the boundaries by bringing together wrestlers and actors from the adult film industry in his wrestling events, and they even filmed much of their wrestling and adult film content in the same place.

Black’s former spouse, Lizzy Borden, was both a wrestler and an actress in adult films, and she played a significant role in the promotion.

21 – Gangrel, Adult Film Director

Gangrel.
Gangrel. Photo Credit: WWE.

Former WWE star Gangrel entered the adult film industry as a director who initially signed a twelve-picture deal. It didn’t end well.

Gangrel would later admit that it was a “stupid decision,” and regrets his brief stint in the industry, shooting only one scene for “Miami Rump Shakerz 2.”

I put a pinky toe in and jumped out real quick because it got me so much heat and negativity that I backed out,” Gangrel admitted in an interview on Wrestling Inc.’s WINCLY podcast.

“Sometimes with [adult films], everybody secretly kind of likes it, but they publicly shame it. It backfired, so I’m gonna stick with what I know in pro wrestling. I might be only somewhere in the middle with wrestling, but at least I know it and love it and can commit to it 100 percent.”

22 – The Negative Effects

Ashley Massaro.
Ashley Massaro. Photo Credit: WWE.

In a scholarly review, researchers examined women in sports and the media’s role in how we view them. The scholars cite several studies that look at how people treat female athletes based on their gender and sexuality.

They argue that, as time goes on, this focus on their sexuality can make people forget about their athletic abilities. One way to see this is by looking at how WWE initially valued and promoted their female wrestlers but then later treated them as less important.

Even though these women were successful in the company, some of them were only recognized for their looks and appeal, and they were eventually left to deal with challenges on their own. This treatment took various forms and had lasting negative effects on wrestling talent.

23 – Chyna Enters The Adult Film Industry

Chyna (Joanie Laurer).
Chyna (Joanie Laurer). Photo Credit: @ChynaJoanLaurer.

Chyna left WWE in 2001, claiming the parting was mutual. But years later, on Vince Russo’s podcast, Chyna described otherwise.

She revealed that after repeated attempts to negotiate a higher wage, she met with Stephanie and Vince McMahon to discuss. When the meeting was over, they didn’t come to a conclusion and tabled the discussion. But the follow-up meeting they promised would never come to pass as later that day, she received a fax saying she was fired.

After leaving the company, Chyna started dating Sean Waltman, the wrestler X-Pac.

Infamously, a private video of the two individuals involved in an intimate moment was taken by the same company that had previously published Paris Hilton’s non-consensual video. Chyna later stated that she never received any money from the video and that it was shared without her permission, which is now recognized as an act of privacy violation.

24 – The Tarnishing of Chyna’s Reputation

Chyna (Joanie Laurer).
Chyna (Joanie Laurer). Photo Credit: Everett Collection, WWE.

While Chyna’s reputation became synonymous with her stints in adult films, Sean Waltman’s reputation, although strange, wasn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. He is still a part of the WWE family to this day.

For example, Triple H was once quoted saying Chyna could not be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame because she participated in adult films. Still, the same sentiment was not extended to her counterpart in those videos, Waltman, an inductee two times over—a double standard many have noticed.

25 – Sable Leaves WWE, Sues the Company

Sable (Rena Lesnar).
Sable (Rena Lesnar). Photo Credit: WWE.

When it came to Sable, she was praised for her beauty and allure, but receiving compliments about her looks didn’t lead to her being treated well by the company where she worked.

After leaving the company in 1999, Sable filed a $100 million lawsuit against the company, alleging mistreatment. Many incidents from her time at the company were mentioned in the lawsuit, including situations where she was asked to reveal herself in storylines, inappropriate behavior by some of her male colleagues, and other degrading actions.

The lawsuit was settled out of court, and while the details are not public, it’s believed that she didn’t receive a substantial payment. Sable later returned to the company and was again given a role that focused on her physical appearance.

26 – Negative Outcome for First Wrestling Playmate Miki Garcia

Recent image of "Miss Wrestling" and Playboy Playmate Miki Garcia.
Recent image of “Miss Wrestling” and Playboy Playmate Miki Garcia. Photo Credit: A&E.

Even wrestling and Playboy’s patient zero, Micki Garcia, did not have a positive outcome in the company she called home.

She ended up working in the business side of Playboy but later left the company due to “the exploitation of the Playmates.” She later testified against Hefner’s abuse allegations.

27 – What Comes Today

Saraya (Paige in WWE) hugs her mother at WrestleMania 31.
Saraya (Paige in WWE) hugs her mother at WrestleMania 31. Photo Credit: WWE.

While it would be comforting to say this has changed, the double standard can still be seen today.

Just like what happened to Chyna, where private pictures were shared without her permission, similar things are happening nowadays.

The fancy gadgets and technology of the 21st century have changed how people enjoy entertainment. Celebrities have had their privacy invaded by the media for a long time. But now, with smartphones, a new kind of invasion happens when personal pictures and videos are shared with the world without the person’s agreement.

28 – Ramifications of Saraya (Paige)’s Intimate Videos Being Hacked

Saraya in All Elite Wrestling.
Saraya in All Elite Wrestling. Photo Credit: AEW.

In 2017, former WWE wrestler and current AEW wrestler Saraya experienced a breach of her privacy when several videos of her engaging in a private and personal activity were made public without her consent.

The ramifications of this spread beyond the ring, and Saraya later divulged how she struggled with her mental health throughout the debacle and had thoughts of self-harm as a result. Further, she now notes how her reputation shifted and the change in how fans treated her.

Although this was close to ten years ago, she still laments how it has been used against her credibility over and over up until today.

She faced the strongest criticism, even though other WWE wrestlers in the video were committed to the same act. Brad Maddox and Xavier Woods didn’t receive any negativity compared to what she did. Woods got the chance to poke at the scandal live on RAW.

However, she subsequently signed with AEW, where the fans embraced her and became the AEW Women’s World Champion.

29 – It Sells, But At What Cost?

Ashley Massaro.
Ashley Massaro. Photo Credit: WWE.

The professional wrestling industry has long known that stories dipping into salacious storylines sell.

Women’s wrestling has been used as a funnel for commodifying sexuality since the days of the circus. They demonstrate a power dynamic, as humiliation, as a celebration, and always through a spectacle. As it has continued into the present, it has teamed up with other billion-dollar industries with the same intentions.

Ultimately, it doesn’t end well for many of the participants.

30 – Ugly Ramifications of Wresting and Adult Industry Connection

Tammy Sytch (Sunny in WWE).
Tammy Sytch (Sunny in WWE). Photo Credit: Carbon County Correctional Facility, Luigi Novi.

Chyna, who faced emotional challenges and struggled with substance abuse, tragically passed away at the age of 46 due to a possible overdose.

Ashley Massaro claimed that she experienced a distressing incident during a WWE tour in Kuwait while visiting a US military base, an incident which affected her for the rest of her life. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 39, and many major news sources reported her death as a suicide.

In May 2022, Tammy Lynn “Sunny” Sytch, who had encountered legal issues over the years, was arrested on charges related to driving under the influence and causing a fatal accident involving a 75-year-old man. She faces life imprisonment.

Exploring the less glamorous aspects of the relationship between professional wrestling and the adult industry sometimes leads us to discover valuable insights and hard-earned truths. Hopefully, people can gain a better understanding of these human desires by examining various historical facts. Through this understanding, we will inevitably encounter the complex emotions of pain, pleasure, and aversion that shape the spirit of our nation and influence our world.

Listen to author Alexa Pruett dive further into the history of Lita on her podcast, "That Wrestling Wench":

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https://that-wrestling-wench.simplecast.com/

A wrestling fan since childhood, Alexa Pruett used to be body-slammed onto her family's couch by her brother. Now, she writes and produces a podcast called That Wrestling Wench. The podcast focuses on the women wrestlers who, although vital pieces of this industry, do not get the same praise as their male counterparts. Alexa is a recent graduate from California State University, Northridge, with a focus on psychology and human sexuality studies, where she reveled in any opportunity to study and write about wrestling.